She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain. —Louisa May Alcott
Books are a uniquely portable magic. —Stephen King
I spent this past weekend in Spring Green with two dear friends from summer theatre camp at Michigan Tech University. We talked from early in the day to late into the night, watching first the Franklin squirrels and baby birds and later a spread of stars over our heads. On Saturday night, we saw a magnificent production of A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams at American Players Theatre.
Through it all, we told stories from our own lives. I’m not sure I can put into words how nourishing it was to hear the stories of their lives and share my own and then to watch the stories of very different lives unfold on stage. Still, with all that, I crave more conversations, more stories.
In the past year, I’ve read that reading reduces stress, may prevent Alzheimer’s, and can improve our ability to empathize with others. In addition, some people claim that bibliotherapy—encouraging reading for a therapeutic effect—can make us happier.
I don’t need a study to verify what I already know—books have a powerful therapeutic effect. Whenever I’ve needed to learn something—whether it’s technical information (how to cook), emotional (how to overcome fear), or prescriptive (how to build a life)—I’ve found the answer in books. And not just instructional, psychological, or self-help books. Judith Ryan Hendricks’s novel Bread Alone taught me more about baking than any of my expensive bread making books. My favorite manual on courage is A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L’Engle), where Meg faces her fears to save someone she loves. And whenever I’ve need to figure out what to do with my life, I’ve picked up novels like Catherine, Called Birdy (Karen Cushman) to remind myself: “. . . I cannot escape my life but can only use my determination and courage to make it the best I can.”
This list holds a few of the books I’ve loved in the last few months. Enjoy!
Mysteries and Thrillers
Come and Find Me by Hallie Ephron. In this suspense novel, computer security expert Diana Highsmith hasn’t left her home since her lover fell to his death on a mountain-climbing trip. Instead, she does all of her work via a Sims-like virtual world. When her sister disappears, Diana must leave her safe cocoon to save her. What follows will shock you—and may leave you wondering who you can believe. Once you’ve finished this, go out and read Ephron’s other novels, including the latest suspense story, Night Night, Sleep Tight, set in the glamorous world of Hollywood during the 60s and 80s.
A Murder of Magpies by Judith Flanders. Middle-aged London editor Samantha (Sam) Clair, is plunged into a puzzle when her star author goes missing along with the manuscript of his tell-all fashion book. Though the plot feels a bit clunky, I adored Sam and enjoyed the rest of the cast. And, of course, A Murder of Magpies is peppered with hilarious book wisdom like this: In the real world, no one kidnaps academics or journalists because no one wants them. It’s hard enough to get rid of them after dinner. Having them around all the time, drinking you out of house and home? Please. (p. 114, A Murder of Magpies, Judith Flanders)
The Bone House (Cab Bolton #1) and Season of Fear (Cab Bolton #2) by Brian Freeman (series). My dad got me hooked on Freeman, who also writes a series featuring Lieutenant Jonathan Stride (Start with Immoral). In The Bone House, Florida detective Cab Bolton is assigned to the case of a murdered teenaged girl Glory, found on the beach in Naples, Florida. The accused is Mark Bradley—who’d been fired from his teaching job because of a suspected affair with Glory’s sister, Tessa. When Mark and his wife Hilary return home to Door County, they receive a chilly reception. While Hilary fights to prove his innocence, the couple puts their faith in the quirky detective Cab Bolton—who believes in Mark’s innocence and seeks the truth. You can read both books in a weekend—but that may leave you wishing that Freeman would hurry up and write the next book in the Bolton series!
The Water Rat of Wanchai (Ava Lee #1) by Ian Hamilton (series). I’m always looking for mysteries that feature female characters I can live vicariously through—and Ian Hamilton has created a winner in Ava Lee. This smart, resourceful Chinese-Canadian forensic accountant travels the world recovering lost funds for powerful people. Her partner, Uncle, is a formidable Hong Kong businessman. Together they right wrongs—often with Ava using her special Martial arts skills. Through it all, Ava remains stylish.
The Devotion of Suspect X (Detective Galileo #3) and Salvation of a Saint (Detective Galileo #5) by Keigo Higashiro (series). In The Devotion of Suspect X, divorced single mother Yasuko Hanaoka has started a new life after escaping from her abusive ex-husband Togashi. When he appears at her apartment to extort money, they fight, and he ends up dead. Yasuko’s neighbor, Ishigami—a mathematics genius who works as a high school math teacher—aids her in covering up the murder. Detective Kusanagi and his friend, physics professor Dr.Yukama (or Detective Galileo), participate in a battle of wits to discover who did it, how it was covered up, and why. I’ve also read Salvation of a Saint—and both books provide a satisfying puzzle.
Books for Young People
Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes. The story takes place over a weekend in the fall of 1973, when Karl Shoemaker is just beginning his senior year. Ever since his dad died of cancer, Karl’s been a part of “the madman underground,” an in-school therapy group. But this year, Karl vows to be normal—and that means not attending therapy group. Never mind that his mother is a chronic alcoholic and cat-hoarder who steals his hard-earned and artfully hidden money. Or that his best friend and every other friend he has is also a member of the madman underground. The book is long and winding, but hang in there—these are broken, imperfect characters who you will love and cheer for throughout the book and beyond.
The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm. One day, 11-year-old Ellie Cruz’s mother receives a phone call from the police, asking her to pick up her father, Melvin Sagarsky. Ellie’s scientist grandfather has discovered how to reverse aging—and turned himself into a grumpy 13-year-old boy with acne and long hair. He moves in with Ellie and her mother, attends middle school with Ellie, and enlists her help to access his research, now locked in a corporate lab. Delicious and quirky, this book is perfect for tweens who love science and anyone who wonders what it would be like to be young again. Favorite quote, “To the possible!”
The Apothecary (The Apothecary #1) by Maile Meloy. It’s 1952 and 14-year-old Janie moves to London with her parents when they’re accused of being communist sympathizers. There she meets a boy her own age, Benjamin, who is the son of the apothecary in the shop around the corner from her house. When the apothecary disappears, Benjamin and Janie join forces to rescue him and—oh my!—save the world from a nuclear bomb. I found this combination historical fiction fantasy novel to be both sweet and enchanting. (Also perfect for tweens and young teens.)
Joy for Beginners Erica Bauermeister. When six friends gather to celebrate Kate’s recovery from cancer, Kate issues a challenge. She’ll conquer her fears and go white water rafting with her daughter if her friends will each accept a personally chosen challenge from her. They agree, and the adventures begin. Each chapter tells the story of one friend working on her challenge. This touching book will leave you wondering what challenge Kate would have given you—or what challenge you can give your own friends!
The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain. On some days, the world feels violent and unkind. It’s hard for me to see the kindness that I know is there. If you’re having that kind of day, pick up Laurain’s delightful tale about a bookseller who happens to find an abandoned handbag—and uses the clues in the bag to search for the owner. While searching, the single divorced dad falls in love with the woman he imagines carrying the purse. Kindness, adventure, and love—what more could you ask for?
The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna Van Praag. When Alba’s promising academic career stalls, she takes a walk and finds herself in front of a house she’s never seen before: 11 Hope Street. The home’s caretaker greets her and offers her a room—with the challenge that she has 99 nights to restart her life. Alba receives wisdom from the other residents of the house as well as the former residents—who are now talking portraits on the wall. This novel provides the reader with a magical journey as Alba connects with famous women of history to find her life’s purpose.
“This house may not give you what you want, but it will give you what you need.”
Because I need someone to talk with about the book:
The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen. In this mystery by a popular Finnish writer, Ella, a young teacher at the local school, is invited to join the Rabbit Back Literature Society. The society is made up of 9 writers chosen and mentored by children’s author Laura White. On the evening of Ella’s induction into the society, White disappears into a surprise snowstorm. It’s up to Ella to figure out what happened to White, what really goes on in the society, and—what’s with the crazy book virus that changes events in her favorite books? This isn’t a traditional mystery but it will keep you wondering what’s happening and why.
What I’m reading right now!
Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper. When I read the premise of this book, I had to read it: 82-year-oold Etta has always wished to see the sea, and so she sets out on a 2,000-mile walk to the ocean, carrying with her some chocolate, extra underwear and socks, and a rifle. The idea reminded me of the novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, which I loved. In Etta and Otto and Russell and James, Otto is Etta’s husband, Russell is her deer-watching friend and neighbor, and James is a talking coyote (why, of course!) who accompanies Etta on her journey. Hooper tells the story through both narrative and letters, artfully weaving together events from past and present. Yes, the premise is tough to believe (Really? She’s walking more than 2000 miles?)—but beyond that, there’s so much to love: eccentric older people who face difficulties with grace, a war-time love story, an animal companion, and a cross-country journey on foot.
I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time by Laura Vanderkam. I was delighted to win this book from 800ceoread. As you know, I’m writing a book on productivity, and I’m curious to see what Vanderkam learned from her data—the time logs of about 1000 women who earn six figures. (I’ll keep you posted on my findings!)
Now it’s your turn. If you’re a reader or a writer, you no doubt have your own very long list. What stories have inspired or enchanted you this year? Please take time to share your favorite books in the comments below.